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Report: Paid staff needed for civilian oversight of Spokane County Sheriff’s Office

A civilian board tasked with overseeing discipline and policies in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office needs paid staff to enact reforms that will improve credibility.

That’s one of the major recommendations in a report released earlier this month by Kathryn Olson, a paid contractor who met with Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, members of the Citizens Advisory Board (CAB) for the sheriff’s office and several community organizations last month. Knezovich, board members and community activists praised the report without settling on how to pay for the suggested changes.

“While it is understood that creating a CAB staffer position will require a commitment of resources that is already scarce, the CAB’s role in Spokane County has evolved to the point that paid personnel is essential if the CAB is expected to evolve to meet community expectations about oversight,” wrote Olson, who has previously overseen civilian oversight for the Seattle Police Department.

In her 13-page report, sent to the board and Knezovich on May 5, Olson praises the proactive approach the sheriff and board members took in soliciting an outside look at their oversight approach. She offered several reform ideas, including instituting term limits for board members and asserting more authority in recruitment and requesting reviews of certain cases and policies.

Olson’s $5,000 visit and evaluation were paid from the sheriff’s budget. Knezovichcalled her observations “well thought-out.” But he said his office did not have the budget to hire a full-time staffer.

Knezovich also said some reformers had unrealistic expectations about the independence of that position, pointing out that members of the Spokane Office of the Police Ombudsman are paid by the city.

“Doesn’t that just put me back in the same position, with people saying, the sheriff hired this person?” Knezovich said. “There is no complete independence. You’ll never get that.”

Bob West, vice president of the Citizen’s Advisory Board, said he’s been working with Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn on freeing up some money for a paid staffer.

“It would be nice if we could have our own office, like how people go to the city ombudsman now,” said West.

The Office of the Police Ombudsman is housed on the first floor of Spokane City Hall, not at the Public Safety Building with the Police Department. Rick Eichstaedt, executive director at the Center for Justice, also said distance from the Sheriff’s Office would improve the public’s perception of the Citizen Advisory Board.

“They need somebody, if you have a complaint or questions, that you can go to that’s not part of the Sheriff’s Office,” said Eichstaedt. He met with Olson along with representatives from the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, the local NAACP chapter and other organizations.

Eichstaedt was part of a group of community members who launched a petition in summer 2014 to increase the size and scope of civilian oversight for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. But Knezovich said the board has been in existence since 2000, and was already working on changing its bylaws when the petition was delivered by a group that included several of his political opponents.

“The thing that really struck me, was there was a continual mention of perception in the report,” Knezovich said. “It’s not a perception issue. There was a misinformation campaign about the CAB.”

But Eichstaedt said the group calling for reform included both opponents of Knezovich and his supporters and transcended politics.

“Our goal isn’t to undo the sheriff,” Eichstaedt said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes he needs the political cover to do the right thing with his deputies. We think having good oversight helps him do that.”

West pointed to the board’s upcoming release of its review of the Ryan Holyk case, which has proved a catalyst for some calling for a more independent body to review disciplinary decisions in the sheriff’s office. Holyk, 15, died after a traffic incident involving Deputy Joseph Bodman in May 2014. Bodman received a letter of reprimand but kept his job.

West said the board’s review of the case, which included looking at nine separate independent investigations of the death, could come as early as this week.

The board won’t meet again until September, and in the meantime West said he and other board members will be working to institute some of the quick-fix reforms Olson suggests. But there are barriers to enacting all of them, he said.

“Until the state law changes, and until we’ve got a funding source, we’ve got to try and be creative and rely on some of (the sheriff’s) resources,” West said.